We are in a time of ongoing, compounding, significant global humanitarian crises and our organizations and clients are woefully unprepared — even after trying well-intentioned work around diversity, equity and inclusion.
In a crisis, the initial reflex remains fixed on safeguarding the affected communities — making sure they are safe and protected and their pain is acknowledged. Then there are those who are not directly impacted who may not have the same historical, social context and understanding surrounding the social crisis. They may want to learn more and do something. Their pain is in feeling helpless, fearing saying or doing the wrong thing, which often leads to good people doing nothing. This is the pattern we must break as organizations and as communicators.
We’ve been kicking the can down the road rather than picking it up and recycling it into something truly useful that leaves the street cleaner. The go-to statement draft speaks of how we are in solidarity with the impacted community. We may mean well and believe we’re saying the right thing but, hopefully, we’ve learned something since the summer of 2020 — the last time the world went to the streets to speak up and show up, recognizing that solidarity is incomplete and ineffective for meaningful change.
As professor and author Roxane Gay states, “Demands for solidarity can quickly turn into demands for groupthink, making it difficult to express nuance.” We’ve relied on narratives that are no longer serving us, our leaders, our employees and therefore our organizations.
We are storytellers and these stories tend to have good guys and bad guys, with our organizations typically framed as the heroes, locking in a binary that doesn’t exist in real life. This is not the time to be the hero but rather the guide, the supporter, the advocate, the conduit and the channel.
The collaboration between my team and our clients center on connecting the dots of language leading to behavior. If we want civility in our workforce during tense times, then what messaging will be instrumental in bringing that about? What will it take with the combo of language, channels, senders, distribution mix and cadence to be in such tight alignment that civility is the only cultural choice?
If we want a certain behavior as a result of our communications, then it must be embedded in our communication processes. If we lean back, leave a void and assume people will be nice when the world feels like it’s on fire, unification cannot and will not happen on its own. We have to usher it in and support people to get there using what we have the most control over —language.
Below are some highlights of how I’ve been working with clients as a guide to use language that sends a message of healing the sense of separation people experience when traumatic events occur. Use it to gut-check your messaging to make sure there’s alignment of your language with the behavior that’s needed.
- Check for inclusive language basics such as using us, we, our instead of you.
- Check for power dynamic language that implies an us vs. them, or that others anyone or any group.
- Check for who or what is emphasized, or who or what is de-emphasized. Are there people or identities that are invisible?
- Check for double standards. Can what you say be equally applied?
- Check for anything that can demean, devalue or introduce lesser value (when difference has lower value or is seen as a deficit or judgment) to a people, community, traditions, faiths, language, beliefs or geo-location.
Bias and Status Quo
- Check for any stereotypes or tropes being reaffirmed.
- Avoid assumptions of how people feel or should feel.
- Check for anything that dehumanizes a group of people, including using stats and numbers instead of giving a face, voice or life to people who make up the stats and numbers.
- Be constructive, productive and compassionate without bypassing or being performative.
- Use plain language, be accurate, and build bridges and connections. Don’t create an in or out group.
- Be consistent with “nothing about us, without us” — meaning that those from impacted communities have a voice while still adhering to the above.
- Focus on humanity, unifying, honoring each other while respecting relationships, validating experiences and acknowledging varying levels of awareness — education or understanding.
We need to deepen our communication skills to allow DEI to take the lead, show us a new direction and make space for nuance. After using this language guide, we can move to the next step and do the work necessary to make sure we’re not on the back foot yet again the next time more crises happen — and they will.
I’m asking us to let go of arguing for our limitations and allow ourselves the freedom to go deeper into our social messaging to meet the needs of employees, customers and society at large. We must stop performative messaging and add more DEPTH in our communications.
The DEPTH Model, as featured in the book “The Conscious Communicator,” is a useful social issues framework that helps leaders get unstuck and unfrozen.
D — Be deliberate. Stop reacting and break the cycle.
E — Be educated. Pause using majority coding as default.
P — Be purposeful. Tie it all to the organization’s purpose, mission, vision and values.
T — Tailored. Be in your lane. Do you and only you.
H — Habitual. Recognize the larger pattern going on and integrate it into your content strategy.
By bringing DEPTH to our organizations and our communications work, we’ll find that permission and direction to speak externally — when it’s in our wheelhouse — can have direct and meaningful impact.
Then might we understand that employee’s needs, showing up for them in ways we haven’t before. We’ll have a plan that can hold internal and external needs and empower diversity that unifies us rather than polarizes and divides us.
In the words of Stacey Abrahms, “This is actually a moment for action. This is a transformative moment where we can do right and do well. You can guard yourself by making sure we're creating a new narrative.”
Language leads to behavior. Let’s move beyond saying we stand in solidarity and instead act to withstand with depth to own our own unique narrative.
Join IABC Canada East and West Chapters as they host a DEI Communications Mastermind series taught by Kim Clark coming in 2024.
Kim Clark teaches and works with folks who are serious about learning and applying diversity, equity and inclusion to their communications that build relationships and create results in teams and organizations. She is the co-author of "The Conscious Communicator: The Fine Art of Not Saying Stupid SH*T", an Amazon No. 1 bestseller.